See also “Jewish Homesteaders,” a digital presentation by Sam Session ’20 created for the Maine State Museum (August 2018)
Planting Our Roots and Raising Our Children as Back-to-the-Land Jews
by Deena R. Weinstein (April 2011)
In June of 1971, my husband, Jack, returned from Vietnam. His acclimation to civilian life back home began as we drove and camped from Tacoma, WA to Bradford, ME, appreciating 3000 miles of this beautiful country. We stopped to visit Jack’s family in NYC and mine in Syracuse, NY. In Bradford we moved in with friends on their 200-acre farmstead they had purchased at an auction in NYC, sight unseen.
For nine months we lived on the land. We tore down a 200-year old barn and silo, recycling some beams for our bed frame. We enjoyed the slower pace of peaceful small-town life. I had experienced kibbutz life in Israel, and had wanted to try communal life, but sharing even a kitchen, I decided, wasn’t my dream any longer. We started looking for our own place.
In April of 1972 we purchased our own home in Garland, Maine. Built in the 1920s, it included fifty acres of thoroughly cut-over land, and an attached “shed” we used as our horse’s stall before it later garaged our pick-up truck. And we planted a large garden.
As of 2011, we have lived on our farm 39 years in the community of Garland with its consistent population of about 1000 residents. We were the only family who claimed Jewish identity in our town. In our school district (Garland, Exeter, Ripley, and Dexter) there were two outstanding exceptions. One was Dr. Hans Shurman and his wife, Ruth, who had found their way to Maine from Germany. They raised two daughters in Dexter where “Doc” Shurman had delivered most of the babies in the surrounding towns. They were active members of Beth Israel Synagogue in Bangor. Because of their model, encouragement, and friendship, we knew we could raise our children as Jews in rural Maine. The other family was the Alfonds, founders of Dexter Shoe Company. Bill and Joni Alfond’s two youngest children were about the same age as our son and daughter.
With the help of our “from away” peers and the “finest kind” of neighbors who were “native” Mainers, we selectively cut trees that we milled and cured. Together we built our board-and-batten barn with its gambrel roof, cupola, and weather vane. Among us were carpenters and masons, candle makers and herbalists. They built our kitchen cupboards, rebuilt our chimneys for the fireplace and Jøtul wood stove that heated our home, and helped us find and live the “good life.” In exchange we helped build their homesteads, make home brew and wine; and shared our home-grown vegetables, eggs, meat, and maple syrup. We were part of the 1970’s back-to-the-land movement.
Jack and I had a fine community of “new people” and Mainers who came together over food at the Garland Grange Hall where the Food Mill Co-op we had started met to break down orders. We grew to know and respect each other at contra dances, public suppers, and field days. I was a co-coordinator of our town’s first Garland Days, begun during the bi-centennial celebration in 1976. It has continued as a celebration every September for the past thirty-four years. Jack joined the volunteer fire department and I, the ladies’ auxiliary and the Cooperative Extension Group. We both served on the school board. I wrote a column entitled “Our Schools” for The Eastern Gazette. Jack was on the planning board and for decades moderated town meetings. But something was missing.
I was so certain that we would have a Jewish community rapidly growing up around us! Who wouldn’t want to leave the noisy, polluted cities and live life in the country?! Surely there would be a synagogue in Garland soon! The closest one was twenty-five miles away in Bangor. Our first year in Garland we observed the High Holidays by staying home. Neither of us was used to driving on Yom Tov. We fasted, and meditated by walking in the colorful autumn woods. The forest was our temple. The trees were our congregation.
In the eight years before our children were born I had begun to pave the way for Ben and Rachael by sharing our traditions. The children joined me when they were old enough to put candles in the menorah and spin a dreidle as I told the Chanukah story. Over the years we became accomplished storytellers. We extended our venues to churches, nursing homes, hospitals, libraries, and classes at St. Joseph’s College. One December, when Chanukah was observed on the Gregorian calendar in November, I declined the invitations, emphasizing that “Chanukah is not the Jewish Christmas!”
We often invited our neighbors to our home to share our traditions during Chanukah and Passover. Slowly we became aware of other Jews, mostly intermarried couples. I started a “havurah” that included about twenty-five families who wanted their children to know some of the traditions they remembered celebrating as youth. There were the Jewish wooden toy makers who lived in a cave house, others who renovated an old one-room school house; potters, artists, farmers, educators, nurses, farrier, and leather crafters.
In 2001 Jack was the “Outstanding Tree Farmer for the State of Maine.” He was nominated by our forester, Isabel McKay, a member of our Jewish community! No, we didn’t plant and grow Christmas trees. We had a land management plan. Ben and Rachael helped their father in the woods, creating trails and enjoying them on hikes year-round. With the harvesting and sale of selectively cut trees that grew on this previously stripped land, we dug a farm pond. Rachael helped her dad build a sauna! After one of their explorations in the woods the children ran back to the house to excitedly report they’d found a new-born fawn. The doe had given birth and was drinking at the pond.
We shlepped our children to Hebrew school several times a week, an hour drive from their school in Dexter, and from home nearly every Shabbos. Rabbi Joseph Schonberger, our wonderful rabbi of fifteen years, and his wife Susan assured us it was more important to be in shul actively observing Shabbos with our Jewish community than to not drive and remain isolated. I was on the board of Congregation Beth Israel, and though I am personally not comfortable having an aliyah (though I accept the honor of being Galilah; I love dressing the Torah), I did work to help get women counted in the minyan. Our daughter was the first Bat Mitzvah on a Saturday morning in Beth Israel Synagogue.
For many years we attended the Conference on Judaism in Rural New England and Canada held at Lyndon State College in Lyndonville, Vermont. Rural Jews gathered to spend a Shabbat weekend in prayer with hundreds of others who craved to connect and share, with each another and our children, our traditions and culture in Jewish community. I’ll never forget the awe, amazement, and joy on the faces of Ben and Rachael as they sat in an auditorium with hundreds of others all wearing kippot and tallisim, singing and praying in voices that filled the air, being led by Julius Lester and various other lay persons and rabbis, and dancing in a long line of Jews holding hands, weaving out of the auditorium onto the campus’s beautiful grounds surrounded by trees and mountains. Here we were the majority. Here we lived our identity and took this ruach/spirit back to rural Maine where we could carry it with pride, even as a minority.
Having the “Jewish experience” in our rural state included involving our children in United Synagogue Youth (USY). Again, I shlepped my two (and the children of others who were willing to meet up with me on my route) to Portland where there was an active USY at Temple Beth El, and to Boston for USY dances and other socials. Rachael went to Israel with USY. Ben went with Partnership 2000, where US college students worked in Dimona. My friend, Lesli Weiner of Temple Shalom, Auburn, and I started the Maine Jewish Teens to include Jews of all denominations in activities around the state.
For their B’nai Mitzvot, Ben and Rachael had 200 people attend each simchah; half Jewish relatives and community, the rest non-Jewish friends made during our 23 years in Maine. What a wonderful affirmation of our success in raising our children as we “established” ourselves in the good life in this beautiful state! Ben and Rachael had attended secular schools, participated in field hockey and soccer, socialized in community events, raised sheep for 4-H to build their college funds (and to experience “the way life should be”), and still grew up with Jewish identities. They socialized with Jews from all over Maine and New England, got to national USY events…and to Israel.
Our children grew up as Jews in rural Christian Maine. Ben attended the University of Southern Maine and has his degree in philosophy. He worked at Center Day Camp and as a USY advisor. Rachael went to Ithaca College where she was active in Hillel and the Jewish community, and returned to Maine. Both live here in Portland.
This story would not be whole without mentioning that I have landsmen (mishpacha, relatives) who grew up on Vesper Street on Munjoy Hill, Portland in the early 1900s. My cousin, Arlene Goffin Eisen (granddaughter of Bennett and Annie Goffin, daughter of Herman O. Goffin and Dorothy Rabinowitz of Waterville) now lives in St. Louis. Her sister Shirley met her husband Seymour Ladd in Old Orchard Beach and they now live in Rhode Island. Irving Shriro, my uncle in Syracuse, NY, is cousin of the Maine Shriro family (known as Shiro) owner of the Jefferson Hotel, later known as John Martin’s Manor, in Waterville.
Hopefully these roots of relatives (if not the ones we grew in our forty years here!) will help allow my children who were born here and have remained here to be identified as Mainers. Their home is here where they are involved in the Jewish communities, maintain an appreciation of the rural life, raise and eat Maine-grown produce; and hike, bike, and enjoy all that this state has to offer. Rachael will eventually have her farm, I’m sure. Ben has his own radio show on WMPG and has met a lovely Jewish woman, Andrea, who graduated from The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland. Rachael met a man when she joined the League of Young Voters while working at Preble Street Resource Center as a VISTA volunteer. Justin (yes, a “nice Jewish boy”) was the director of the League.
I want to end with a love story. One day, soon after they met, Justin asked Rachael where she went to school. She replied, “Dexter.” Imagine her surprise when he said that he, too, had gone to Dexter schools. Because he is six years her senior, she hadn’t known him; but oh! she then realized that he was the big brother of her classmate, Reis Alfond! This August, seven years after meeting, Justin and Rachael were married…by our Rabbi Schonberger who traveled to Maine from Youngstown, Ohio! At the wedding reception Justin’s father Bill remarked that his son had traveled from Dexter to South Africa, to New Orleans and the west coast, and finally returned to Maine where he met and fell in love with “the girl next door!”
This is our love story. We did, indeed, live the good life, establishing ourselves in rural Maine, planting our seeds, cultivating our trees, growing our roots, and raising our children, as Jews. A new seed is growing. Our first grandchild will be born to Justin and Rachael this August. Our Maine family tree continues to branch out and blossom.